“You can fool some of the people all of the time,” said W.C. Fields quoting Lincoln, “and those odds are good enough for me.” Fields also said that, in a presidential election, he never voted for anyone, only against, and this time around contrarians could have, well, a Field day, since George W. Bush and Al Gore have joined forces to snooker the American people on virtually every subject, from taxes to education to foreign policy. They both agreed, for example, that the American people were morally obliged to violate U.S., Cuban, and international laws by stealing a six-year-old Cuban boy from his father.
Why should we be surprised? Both parties have also agreed that it is right to murder Iraqi and Serbian children to express our disapproval of the governments that are making their lives miserable. The two Catholic candidates in the race, Patrick Buchanan and Joseph Sobran, have seen through the bad logic (and bad faith) that has turned the United States into the leading terrorist nation on the planet, but neither can see that the same puritanical busybodying is at work in the Elian Gonzalez case. There is still hope for Joe and Pat: I can remember when they were both what they would now call war-mongering imperialists, and they have grown out of that phase.
The underlying fallacy in the Elian Gonzalez case is that Americans somehow owe the rest of the world something—a chance for freedom, a higher standard of living, access to reruns of McHale’s Navy. If you listen to the official voices of our cultural life—church, television, schools, magazines, even what we now call the arts—each one of us now has moral and political obligations that connect us with starving villagers in Peru, rebels in Afghanistan, aborted girl children in China.
For most of us, these obligations can only be discharged by giving support to international charity. The spirit of international humanitarianism was best described by the president of the Rockefeller Foundation who, in 1937, lauded the “men who never thought in terms of flag or boundary lines and who never served a lesser loyalty than the welfare of mankind.”
Most people in the United States (although by no means all) acknowledge some responsibility to make charitable contributions out of their surplus and abundance. But how much to give, to whom, and how—those are questions to which there are no easy or obvious answers, although some philosophers and theologians have made it sound as if there were. All men are brothers, say the theologians, and Christians have an obligation to play good Samaritan everywhere and at all times. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need, say philosophers on the left. We are positively obligated to do anything we can to alleviate suffering “without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance.” Proximity or friendship might once have counted for something, but (as Peter Singer put it) “instant communication and swift transportation have changed the situation,” because the “global village” has made “an important, though still unrecognized difference to our moral situation.”
The global village is a powerful image that makes everyone each other’s next door neighbor. If a neighbor’s house burned down in the middle of winter, it would be worse than uncharitable to refuse to take in the family and provide them with food and warm clothing: It would be unjust. In the world of international philanthropy, the same argument applies to all of the global village.
Do not imagine that citizens of a global village can take refuge in the right to dispose of their own property. Two centuries ago, William Godwin argued in Political Justice (the classic text of modern liberalism) that a wealthy man is obligated to share his wealth: “So far from being entitled to well earned applause, for having employed some scanty pittance in the service of philanthropy, he is in the eye of justice a delinquent, if he withhold any portion from that service.” Godwin was addressing his argument only to the people of England, but if there are sound moral reasons for redistributing wealth within a society, then the same or similar arguments can be used to justify redistribution between societies.
In adopting this point of view, internationalists can no longer consider themselves American or French or Croat. They are citizens of the world, and their neighborhoods are linked by computers, fax machines, and mass media into a universal consciousness that feels “a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”
In the secularized vision of the human brotherhood, as it is represented by international agencies for relief and development, all the world’s resources should be shared by all the world’s peoples collaborating for the common good. The obstacles to fulfilling this dream are not lack of resources, the culture of Third World nations, or even common human frailty. Former World Bank President Robert McNamara points the finger at provincial pride, ethnic resentments, localism, and nationalism—all of which stand in the way of global justice:
There are no material obstacles to a sane, manageable, and progressive response to the world’s development needs. The obstacle lies in the minds of men. . . . Too many millennia of tribal suspicion and hostility are still at work in our subconscious minds. But what human society can ultimately survive without a sense of community? Today we are in fact an inescapable community, united by the forces of communication and interdependence in our new technological order. The conclusion is inevitable: we must apply at the world level that same moral responsibility, that same sharing of wealth, that same standard of justice and compassion, without which our own national societies will surely fall apart.
The underlying conception of global philanthropy is that of the national welfare state applied internationally. Because of injustices committed by previous generations of Europeans, the current inhabitants of developed nations are positively obligated, according to dozens of declarations, charters, and manifestos, to promote (in the words of one internationalist commission) “the economic and social progress of all countries, especially developing countries.”
The language of international justice and development is not confined to congresses of Third World leaders; it is the everyday language of World Bank presidents and American secretaries of state. And while we as individuals have little (if any) power over the decisions made by national and international leaders, we are expected to pay taxes and abide by declarations in ways that may increasingly intrude upon private life.
This international concern with individuals (now expressed as “international human rights”) has two sides. Most obviously, it includes the various U.N. declarations on human rights and children’s rights, which implicitly take precedence over national sovereignty and national legislation. A child mistreated or neglected in Detroit may now become the concern, not just of the United Nations, but of the member nations and (presumably) of the citizens of those member nations, and a Cuban custody battle can be turned into an international incident.
Humanitarian globalists always boast of their accomplishments when they are demanding relief for Rwanda or proposing an international tax to redistribute the goods of the developed North to the developing South. They prefer not to mention how much of the money sent by Western nations is squandered by inefficient and corrupt organizations, both public and private. In his book The Lords of Poverty, Graham Hancock has documented the waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the “international aid business.” His indictment takes in the United Nations and Red Cross officials who administer relief while living in luxury hotels; religious organizations (such as International Christian Aid and World Vision) whose “overhead” costs can exceed 50 percent; and the record of rotting food, inoperative equipment, and unusable (sometimes potentially lethal) medicines that have been inflicted upon the objects of international charity.
What, for example, has been the effect of the World Bank upon the Third World countries it has attempted to “develop”? Anyone who is willing to take upon himself the unpleasant task of reading through the annual addresses Robert McNamara made while World Bank president will soon notice a pattern of recurring themes. In speech after speech, Mr. McNamara lauded the World Bank’s “very impressive record of development,” while at the same time conceding that the Bank had failed either to close the gap between rich and poor nations or to reduce poverty. In 1970, McNamara declared war on the tribal mentality, and three years later in Nairobi he unveiled a new plan of attack against “absolute poverty,” setting specific goals for small farm production as well as establishing a program of institutional reforms in the poorest nations. In 1976, admitting that “poverty tends to perpetuate itself,” he outlined his new battle plan of “intervention . . . designed and launched against its dynamics.” However, in the very next year, the president confessed that “in retrospect it is clear that too much confidence was based on the belief that rapid economic growth would ultimately result in the reduction of poverty.”
Both capitalist and socialist critics have held the World Bank responsible for at least some of the economic and agricultural disasters that have overtaken many poor nations in recent decades. In the capitalist critique, easy money has encouraged Third World countries to engage in reckless spending on money-losing projects, to discourage the start-up of profitable and productive businesses, and to undertake the sort of centralized economic planning and controls that have failed everywhere they have been tried.
Tanzania is the African nation that has been the recipient of tire largest amount of foreign aid and has been frequently described as Robert McNamara’s pet project, and former President Julius Nyrere was frequently held up as a model African ruler. But despite massive infusions of aid from the World Bank and from Scandinavian countries throughout the 1970’s, growth in agriculture and in industry actually slowed in 1978-79. By 1979, even President Nyrere was admitting his defeat on all fronts, and in 1990, worn out by his well-subsidized efforts to create a socialist state, he resigned in despair from all politics.
Similar stories can be told of Mozambique or Mexico or Somalia. The 1992 U.N./U.S. invasion of Somalia was undertaken, according to the American press, with the purest motives ever known for a military action: undiluted altruism. Months before President Bush decided to send in the Marines, he and the rest of the country had been subjected to pictures of starving Somalis on the evening news. The whole affair, from first to last, was a political melodrama, and no one should have been surprised by the cameras and klieg lights covering the Marine landing.
Were the Somalis suffering because the West had neglected to send them aid? On the contrary, it is far more likely that our aid made the trouble in the first place. In fact, the United States and other Western nations had heavily subsidized the crumbling regime with lavish annual donations. By 1987, debt-service obligations were 167 percent of Somalia’s $130 million export earnings —as opposed to $400 million in foreign aid. Somalia was, in fact, the recipient of America’s largest aid program in sub-Saharan Africa.
Not all the dollars spent, however, went to feed starving Somalis. USAID workers were said to live on a lavish scale with a 25 percent bonus for serving in a hardship country. Provided with all the amenities—luxury hotels, beach clubs, fine restaurants—the Western aid workers failed to deliver relief in 1987, partly because of interagency bickering among the representatives of USAID, UNICEF, Oxfam, WHO, etc. Little had improved by 1992, and at the time of the American invasion, the Washington Post recounted how 15 people a day were dying of thirst in one settlement because the UNHCR office was haggling with a local contractor over the price of putting in a well.
If international relief governmental or professional, is by and large a failure, the humane person does have other options. He might, for example, practice charity closer to home, where it is possible to become personally involved and where it is much easier to monitor the honesty and effectiveness of relief programs. Mother Teresa, when a Milwaukee woman volunteered to come and assist her in India, told the woman to do good in her own hometown, to find Calcutta in Milwaukee.
Charity does begin at home, and the burden of charity is most easily discharged toward those with whom we are already connected by bonds of blood and experience. Charity toward strangers requires effort, and the more foreign the stranger, the greater the effort required. I am speaking, now, of that natural charity, which grows and expands with the maturing conscience of the individual, in distinction from what is generally known as “compassion,” the artificial sense of benevolence we are taught to feel in doing good deeds by long distance. In this case, the reverse is true. People who will not take a bowl of soup to a sick neighbor will weep over the fate of starving Albanians whose pictures they have seen on television.
All these goals are laudable in themselves, and worthy men and women may well choose to devote themselves to pursuing the welfare of foreigners as a sort of special vocation, but what seems to be far more common is the telescopic philanthropy of Dickens’ Mrs. Jellaby, whose eyes —so farsighted that “they could see nothing nearer than Africa”—overlooked the needs of children, friends, and neighbors. One American thinker put the whole problem in a nutshell: “Why don’t you mind your own business, ’cause if you’d mind your business, then you won’t be minding mine.”
So we see today, people who neglect their own children — send them to public schools and give them unrestricted access to TV—are getting teary-eyed over a Cuban kid they will never meet. A famous Unionist judge in Charleston once remarked that South Carolina was too small to be a nation and too big to be a lunatic asylum. The United States today has apparently grown too big to be a nation, but it is still a lunatic asylum.